I heard about this book when I was searching for some information about silk weavers in Bethnal Green, so I ordered it from my local library via the inter-library loan service.
It’s an interesting book – part personal family history, and part academic study. The author focuses on the way that personal stories of individual lives are also part of the broader history of time and place. By using personal ephemera as her starting point, Hilda Kean creates a fascinating – and unusual – account of some of her family history.
I found the chapters which deal with the author’s East London ancestors brought many connections with my family tree. For example, one branch of her family consisted of silk weavers from Spitalfields / Bethnal Green. Despite the supposed decline in silk weaving from the late 1830s, Kean’s family continued to be listed as weavers throughout the 19th century, remaining in the same area.
Similarly, my Ferry ancestors were weavers who remained in the Brick Lane / St Matthew area of Bethnal Green for most of the 19th century. Although some moved into other trades (such as cabinet making), many still described themselves as weavers.
Another connection which interested me was the section “On the Margins” which details a family’s move eastwards to what is now (2012) an industrial estate on the edge of the Olympic Park. The author describes Wyke Road, a street on the fringes of the Hertford Union canal, and quotes the social investigator Charles Booth as characterising this area as a place where
“those rejected from the centre [of London] had been flung completely over the heads of the rest of the population to alight where no man had yet settled, occupying ill-built houses on the marshy land that is drained or flooded by the river Lea. “
My grandmother, Esther Saunders, was born in Wyke Road in December 1899 although the family soon moved even further out, to the other side of the river Lea, to Stanley Road, Stratford, The area around Wyke Road was heavily industrial: the local chemical and gas works, whilst providing relatively secure employment also polluted the air with foul smells. It was an area where, as Hilda Kean describes, “London turned into industrial suburb, Bethnal Green into marshes, here into there”.
Overall, I found this book suggested some new ways of thinking about family history and how to connect genealogical research to the broader history of an area. Reading the personal details of Hilda Kean’s family also brought back many memories of my grandparents – I shall be writing about bread pudding sometime!